Rory McIlroy was encouraged with the start he made to the “next chapter” of his career as he opened the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with a 67.
McIlroy offset five birdies with two bogeys, including a three-putt from long range at his finishing hole as he closed on three under par, two shots adrift of early leader and Ryder Cup team-mate Thomas Pieters.
The 28-year-old hit the headlines earlier this week when it emerged that he had ended his nine-year partnership with caddie JP Fitzgerald less than a fortnight after showering praise on his bag man for inspiring his first-round fight back following a dreadful start at The Open.
McIlroy explained his reasons for the “tough” split at his pre-tournament press conference and confirmed that close friend Harry Diamond, the best man at McIlroy’s wedding earlier this year, would be his caddie at Firestone Country Club and also at next week’s PGA Championship.
The 2014 champion, playing alongside Open champion Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, made a confident start as he holed from 25 feet for birdie at the 11th – his second – before giving the shot back at the 13th, but a precise wedge to four feet set up a three at the 18th and further gains at the second and third followed.
McIlroy nailed another confident putt at the sixth, but he tugged his approach to the ninth and needed three putts to get down from 50 feet to slip back into the group on three under alongside Spieth, Jon Rahm, Bubba Watson, Ross Fisher and Kevin Kisner.
“It was good with Harry on the bag, although a little weird at the start,” said McIlroy, who first linked up with Fitzgerald shortly after turning professional in 2008. “Obviously it’s been nine years since I’ve had anyone else on my bag, so even just hearing a different voice, it’s a little different.
“But I thought we did well out there, and we consulted each other when we needed to. I sort of did all my own stuff when I felt like I was good and then whatever decisions I made, whether they were good or bad, it was on me. I didn’t have anyone to get frustrated at or than myself. So it went well out there.
“I hadn’t written anything in the yardage book for a long time so it was good to get back to that and just take ownership a little bit more
“It was strange for the first couple of holes but I stuck to it and I feel I played pretty well. I guess it’s kind of the start of the next chapter in my career and we’ll see where it goes from here, but it was great to have my best mate on the bag and we’re just having a good time.”
McIlroy arrived at Royal Birkdale on the back of three missed cuts in his previous four starts, and he looked likely to make another early exit when he bogeyed five of the first six holes on the opening day before Fitzgerald intervened with a pep talk which sparked a valiant comeback.
The four-time major winner recovered to earn a tie for fourth, and he feels his biggest improvement during Open week was to find a solid, consistent groove on the greens.
Shrugging aside the closing three-putt bogey in Ohio, McIlroy added: “The putter feels really good. It felt good at The Open and I’ve been working hard on trying to blend the technical stuff with a little bit of feel as well and I feel like it’s coming together.
“I didn’t feel I had my best stuff at Birkdale but I was still able to have a decent finish, and I was sort of in contention on the last day until Jordan did what he did over the last few holes. But I really feel like I turned a corner at Birkdale and it’s nice to open with a good round here.”